Jagdish Patel is a Nottingham based artist, based at Primary, working within the realms of portraiture and documentary. Much of his work follows a process of socially engaged art practice, often working in collaboration within working-class communities. Over the past few years, he has undertaken projects with people from Gypsy community, Portuguese farm workers, people with mental ill health, Asian football clubs, victims of racial violence across England, and Punjabi bar owners in the Black Country. He is currently working on a project with Muslim soldiers and their families. He recently has exhibited work across the country. He has shown work in recent years at Southbank, London, Nottingham Contemporary, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Primary.
Describe your practice for us
I came to art through law, or community law which is really about thinking creatively to problem solve. I tend to continue to work this way, by talking to people thinking about what we want to achieve, and how we can use the process to achieve this. I work mainly in photography, and photographs like all art has a life in itself outside this process, so clearly you need to produce quality work that can hold its own against other work. I’m not sure how to describe is succinctly, perhaps collaborative photography.
How long have you been practising and by what route did you come to your practice?
I came to this quite late. I was working for a human rights charity, doing anti-racist casework and research for over ten years. It involved a lot of campaign work, and over the decade we did a lot of important work, and the cases we worked on gained a lot of publicity. Although this type of work, at that level is quite creative, I never thought about working as a creative. After moving to the East Midlands I worked with the local Gypsy community around a campaign for Gypsy rights in Italy. The Italian government had started burning down every gypsy camp in the country, and this work led to more discussions wit the Gypsy community and an art project locally. At first I tried to keep the photography work and human rights work separate, but after a few years I decided to combine the two interests. This really came together when I completed my MA Photography at De Montfort, and has continued since. Over time the whole process combines the ideas of community empowerment taken from the world of civil rights with that of photography. If you have a set of values about people and their civil rights, it would not be right to simply take a photograph and display this without some dialogue about the process, and when you think about this process then this becomes a important part of the work.
You use your practice to explore the relationships between history, activism and lived experience. Can you say more about that.
It is difficult to work within photography without thinking about how visual images are used. You only have to type in specific words around gender or race, or even places which are seen as black and Asian ghettos and you immediately see racist or gender stereotypes in google images. The camera was invented in the last 1850s and immediately gets taken to India to document the 1857 War of Independence, except its not a piece of objective documentary, it is mostly constructed photography to explain a particular narrative for the colonial government. The Indian Photography societies which start in the late 1800 were a reaction to this, but this interdependent relationship between the colonised and colonised, or viewer/viewed is fascinating. If you then approach historical narrative as you would a piece of fictional text, with narrative, characters, focal points, you can then unpick things, and start to question accepted notions or accepted truths. I like doing this within communities, and having dialogues with groups of people, and thinking about the interconnections between history, people and place.
A lot of your work is produced in collaboration with communities. Which comes first, the group or the subject matter?
It depends on the project. Much of the commissioned work often have identified communities or groups of people, and you have to spend time getting to know them, and how your ideas and their ideas gel together. The challenge is to do this well, which means spending a lot of time with people and try to understand how they see and interact with their environment, but as most commissions come with often deadlines around 3 months, it’s not always easy. My own project are much slower, and often come after a series of conversations, and reading around subjects. If you don’t have funding for a project, you do a lot of slow experimental work over a period of time. Often the project does really come together until you start on how it’s going to be delivered or shown to others. I have been working with farming communities on and off for years, but haven’t time to consolidate this into a project yet, and never really shown it anywhere. Hopefully it might happen sometime, but it’s not on the horizon for a while yet.
Are these projects the start of longer term relationships/explorations?
Yes, for example in 2015 I was asked to help some Caribbean youth in Lenton who kept getting stopped and searched. They took me to a park and sat me on a park bench and over one afternoon they were searched a couple of times for no reason. This led to a series of conversations about their rights with some academics and youth workers. Shortly afterwards there was an incident with some Pakistani youths, and we tried to get different groups together. These conversations with young people led me to meet a group of elders who talked about their own past, and connections with the British Army in the World Wars. In 2017 this led to a project about the World Wars, rights and resistance. Once aspect of this, the stories around WW2 I’m working on at the moment, but the conversations from 2015 around people’s rights continue and aren’t yet over, and will continue at least into next year. How we connect the two conversations isn’t clear, but our intention is very much to bring these different conversations together. The real challenge is to not see exhibitions as the end result, but a beginning or continuations of the conversation talk about the broader issues you want to talk about.
What is important to you in maintaining and motivating your practice?
I’ve always been self motivated, and love reading and art. Much of the campaign world is very creative and engaged with the real world. We have a huge growth in popular nationalism, not just here, but the US, Russia and India, the political implications are huge, but also the impact this has on how people see and interact with others and their local environment is really important, that’s why it’s important to make sure you properly engage with the public.
What have been your biggest achievements since establishing your practice?
I’ve had work shown at the South Bank and some other galleries, and have managed to continually get work so that’s been good. The biggest thing is not my own work but developing my practice with a broader group of people and participants. The creation of the Nottingham centre for photography and social engagement, which as managed to put together a photography festival in Nottingham last year with shown by over 130 local photographers. Some of the photographers got commissions after the Festival is was a good start of something special, we’re hoping to continue this year. (www.offcentre.org) You have to develop your own practice, but it’s also good to work with others.
What have been the biggest challenges to your practice?
Probably the same as everyone else, the poor pay. You need a consistent cashflow not just to pay the mortgage, but also to pay for materials to continue working on project, and keeping this consistently flowing is not easy, balancing workloads but still having time to go to events and talks, getting access to research material, the usual stuff in this line of work.
What is the most interesting or inspiring thing you have seen or been to recently, and why?
Plenty around, Claudette Johnson’s work at Modern Art Oxford, the film If Beale Street Could Talk best film so far this year, I’ve spent a lot of the year looking at Imran Quereshi’s work which has been really inspiring.
Which other artists’ work do you admire, and why?
This week I’m obsessed with Dana Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts. Dan from Photo Parlour introduced me to the work, it’s a 22 year examination of a district in Watts, Los Angeles. I’m also reading Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which I’m enjoying. It makes a change from the material about World War 2 and India I’ve been reading for the past few months, though I’ve found some interesting art from the period like Pran Nath Mago’s Farewell. Some other people I love include Susan Meiselas, Laia Abril, Mathieu Asselin, Zanele Muholi, Sally Mann, Chris Killip, Taryn Simon, Fiona Tan, Alec Soth, Jeremy Deller, the Singh Sisters, and Imran Quershi. The writings of Ariella Azoulay. This is not the ultimate list though, it’s not an easy question as there are so many and the web makes it so easy to look at people’s work nowadays. I’ve been lucky as I was on the selection panel for the New Art Exchange open and saw loads of really interesting work from the East Midlands. I also help set up the Off Centre Photo Festival in Nottingham, and was both pleased and shocked to see so much good quality work being produced on our doorstep, but not been given a platform to be seen by others. We are going through and will making a better portfolio site so others can see this work from next month. We have some good galleries in Nottingham, and I’m enjoying the Lis Rhodes show.
Where do you see your work in the next 5 years?
I’m hoping to spend more time writing after this year. I’ve just been working on different projects for a few years and need some time to reflect where to go next. I think a lot of the research and material I reference come from India or the Caribbean and I would really like to spend time research oversees. So I don’t know exactly where I’ll be in five years, though. I’m starting to mix photography and painting, and using large format cameras more, and working on the collaborative process better, so these things will continue to develop.
Who would you most like to have visit your studio?
Paul Weller to sing, Ottolenghi to cook with, Shappi Khorsandi for the jokes, and Vijay Prasad to talk politics, and I could take photos. Seriously though, I don’t who to say. I once had tea with the photographer, Susan Meiselas and there a load of conversation I could have had so maybe her.
Where can we see your work? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, events or projects?
I’m working on a project called ‘When the snow melts’ about colonial politics and the second war. It’s an attempt try to think about how to develop a global narrative about the first and second world war, rather than the nationalist approach to war memorialization. We are working with local families, recounting their families war stories, as well as using archival and other material. This will open at the New Art Exchange in September. I’ve also been working on a project in Leicester with a Punjabi community football team, and work from this project will be shown sometime next year. There is some work on my website, though despite my best intentions it only gets updated a couple of times a year, I’m thinking of presenting more through a blog or facebook but I’ve haven’t really had time to develop this.
Jagdish was interviewed in August 2019.
All images are by and courtesy of the artist and © Jagdish Patel